The Inside Agenda Blog

Agenda Insight: A Meritocracy Worth Fighting For

Tuesday February 28, 2012

One of Canada’s highest articles of civic faith is that we are a meritocracy.

Throughout our history, Canada has grown through the toil of generations of Canadians who were inspired by the belief that our country is free of the rigid class systems of the Old World, that Canadians' success or failure depends on our own efforts and our own abilities.

Canada has prospered as a country because Canadians believed that a fair opportunity to prosper as individuals was our birthright.

Even extreme inequities of wealth have rarely roused Canadians because of our confidence in the equality of opportunity. While we exult in the equal dignity and equal worth of all citizens, we have held fast to the principle that inequities of outcome are acceptable when they reflect people of unequal talent and industry reaping as they sow.

But in recent years, we’ve come to doubt our faith in this meritocracy.

The average Canadian is now more skilled and works far longer than their parents, yet enjoys no greater wealth and endures far higher debt and insecurity. For the first time, an outright majority of Canadians believes our children will be worse off than ourselves.

Amongst both the poorest quarter and the wealthiest quarter of Canadian families, the single greatest determinant of a child’s future prosperity is not personal characteristics, but the father’s annual income. Amongst the fabled wealthiest one per cent of Canadian adults, more than two-thirds work or worked for the same corporations as their fathers.

More pointedly still is the means through which advantage and disadvantage are now passed from generation to generation.

Until the late twentieth century, vast wealth in Canada emanated from the multigenerational accumulation of assets. Today, it flows primarily from high personal wages. Yet, we have become a less mobile society, where Canadians’ lives are being increasingly defined not by what they are, but by who their parents were.

The critical inheritance that wealthy parents now bequeath to their offspring is investment in private instruction in music, art, and sport, while such facilities wither in the public school system. It is formal education at sought-after institutions, while mainstream universities become bloated with students and starved of resources. It is access to a web of professional and social relationships beyond the domain of the poor. It is, in essence, opportunity itself.

In this context, Canada’s sense of self as a meritocracy is in peril. The risk is not that we are regressing into a class-based society where the rich hold down the poor. It is that we are degenerating into a caste-based society where the poor and middle classes are trapped by inherited unequal access to culture, education, and self-development.

Although we are certainly a less economically mobile society than we once were, we are still more mobile than the vast majority of other western nations. But there is no doubt that we have arrived at a moment of decision for our country.

Canada was built on the dream of meritocracy: on the promise of better lives for our children and on the dignity of hope. The time has come to ask, is it still a dream worth fighting for?

For The Agenda with Steve Paikin, I’m Akaash Maharaj.